Sunday, 1 October 2000

Isaac Asimov: Pebble in the Sky (1950)

Edition: Grafton, 1986
Review number: 638

In 1949 when he was writing his first novel, Isaac Asimov had already had some success with published short stories. Pebble in the Sky shows both experience as a writer and inexperience in the longer form, as it tends to jump around rather too much for a continuous narrative to emerge. The style is basically fully developed, and (in his fictional writing) did not change a great deal over the next forty years.

In terms of the rest of Asimov's fiction, Pebble in the Sky is set in the galaxy ruled by the Galactic Empire based on Trantor whose downfall is the starting point of the Foundation trilogy. Its central character is an archaeologist, who sets out to prove the crackpot theory that Earth is the original home of mankind (the orthodox position is a form of convergent evolution). Earth is a galactic backwater, largely radioactive, ruled by a religious cult in uneasy co-existence with the Galactic authorities, a portrayal clearly based on the position of Judea in the first century Roman Empire. Any question of human origins and the source of the radioactivity is going to conflict with this cult, causing the trip to have major political repercussions.

This in itself would make an interesting story, but Asimov weakens it with his second major element. On twentieth century Earth a physics experiment goes wrong spectacularly, catapulting an unsuspecting passerby into the future. No explanation is given for what happens (which is unlike Asimov), and the presence of the time traveller is in the end used rather ineptly, as a treatment given to him to increase the learning capacity of his mind so that he can pick up the language turns him into a kind of superman. The whole of this strand of the plot is rather like a stereotype of a Marvel comic, and the original physics experiment is strikingly similar to that which kicks off E.E. "Doc" Smith's Skylark.

It is interesting that his big success of the next few years, the Foundation trilogy, is made up of shorter, pre-published elements. If I remember the chronology of Asimov's novels correctly, it was some years before Asimov wrote another novel conceived as a whole, the SF whodunit Caves of Steel.

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